Thursday, 21 October 2021
Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting: Statements
The Government made some seriously important decisions this week regarding Covid and restrictions and, true to form, it did not provide any space for a debate. There has been a democracy deficit in this country since Covid emerged. The elected representatives of the people have been sidestepped in respect of most of the important decisions that have been made. It is only because I called for a debate during the Order of Business on Tuesday that we are having one and it is being held at a time when most Deputies have gone home, which is a disgrace.
The Government stated in September that NPHET would be wound up in the middle of October but that is now completely off the agenda. Paul Reid stated in August that once we had hit 80% vaccination rates, we could fully reopen. That milestone has come and gone and been ignored. Ireland is now the most vaccinated nation in Ireland, with a 92% adult vaccination rate. Ours is the longest and most severely restricted country in Europe. It has cost more here than in almost any other country in Europe; in fact, per capita, it has cost twice the European average to deal with Covid in this State. Still, we have the seventh highest incidence of Covid in the European Union. The Government's policy is failing radically when it comes to Covid.
The truth is we are in a very dangerous place now. The Government simply does not know what is happening. It has been blindsided by what is happening in society. I listened to Professor Luke O'Neill on the radio this week admit they do not know what is happening. Evidence is rapidly accumulating that suggests Covid is spreading between people who have been vaccinated. Nobody could have foreseen or second-guessed that and I do not suggest the Government was out of place in that regard. Dr. Cillian De Gascun has stated that while vaccination reduces the risk of Delta infection, fully vaccinated individuals have viral loads similar to those of the unvaccinated and can efficiently transmit infection. Vaccinated people are catching and transmitting Covid and ending up in hospital and ICU and, tragically, some are losing their lives.
Do not get me wrong: vaccines significantly reduce mortality and morbidity. They are a significant tool in dealing with Covid, but transmission among vaccinated people is happening in this country at a rate far higher than anybody expected and that creates very significant problems for the Government. The first problem is that the Government has put all its eggs in the vaccine basket and is allergic to antigen tests, which is causing massive damage to our country. The Government's opposition to the proper use of antigen tests is, in my view, criminal. It is shocking.
Under the Government's law, a person who has been vaccinated but has Covid is allowed into a pub or restaurant and allowed to spread the illness to other vaccinated people. By contrast, a person who has not been vaccinated but has received a negative antigen test and is Covid free is banned from the hospitality sector. Despite that being phenomenally discriminating, segregating and so on, the policy simply is not working.
I agree with what a previous speaker said. There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country whose civil liberties have been taken away. There is a two-tier citizenship and they are being othered for something that is not having the desired effect. In television and radio studios for the past year, Deputies and Ministers have stated that they are completely in favour of antigen testing, that they are looking into it and that it will be rolled out soon, yet here we are, 12 months later, and there is practically no difference in what is happening.
It is not being rolled out. There is a chasm between the language the Government is using and the actions it is implementing. It is a prime example of government capture - Ministers saying what they think people want to hear, but not implementing it because the Civil Service tells them not to.
NPHET is in a small minority of national public health organisations in the European Union in its opposition to antigen testing. Antigen testing is widespread throughout Europe as a means to stop Covid spreading in hospitality. It saves lives, it allows businesses to function and it is non-discriminatory. Take Denmark as a comparison. Denmark has a lower vaccination rate than Ireland has. It has had no hospitality restrictions since September. It had a vaccine plus antigen pass when it opened hospitality fully in May. That has been dropped since September. It has a Covid incidence rate that is one third of this State's rate. It is absolutely damning. The difference has been that Denmark is antigen testing radically. Even in the plans the Government promoted this week, antigen testing is still largely aspirational. The Government states that the HSE should implement a programme of Covid-19 antigen testing, but this only applies to people who are identified as being fully vaccinated close contacts. That is a small number of people. The Government is posting it out to these people. It reminds me of the iodine tablets issued by a former Fianna Fáil Minister, also from Wicklow, a number of years ago.
The Government's plan states that the rapid testing expert advisory group has been requested to provide a view as to the potential utility of voluntary self-testing. It also talks about requesting the rapid testing expert advisory group to examine the potential role and feasibility of rapid testing. We are talking about views and feasibility 12 months after the rest of Europe successfully engaged in rapid antigen testing, using it as one of the tools to mitigate against Covid. For me, this is the equivalent of the Donegal Catch fisherman saying "they're keeping my idea on file. In a filing cabinet." It is the most frustrating thing I have seen. I have listened to the Minister's colleague Deputies and the frustration in their voices about this. It is an absolute disgrace that the tests are not being rolled out. It is costing lives, costing health, costing the economy and costing civil liberties in the State.
I wish to speak briefly about capacity. Capacity in the health service has hardly shifted. The Government and the HSE are seeking to close the ICU and emergency beds in my local hospital in Navan, despite them being on the front line in the battle against Covid. I admit there has been a stay of execution in the past week, but it is still the priority of the Government. The Minister mentioned unvaccinated people being the cause of waiting lists in his speech. I hope I am not misinterpreting what he said. The Government and the partners in government own the waiting lists in this country.
I also refer to the immunity cliff that is happening in the State. We are calling for the Government to quickly allow booster shots to be made available in nursing homes throughout the State. They should be given to both the staff and residents of the nursing homes. The idea that it is only for people over 65 years old while there could be people there who are just under that age does not make sense. We must ensure that the nursing home sector is not the epicentre of the next wave.
Finally, I fear that if the Government does not implement widespread antigen testing it will be looking at the other tool that it knows well, which is deepening restrictions. That would be a disaster for this country.